A film director coming off a big success doesn’t know what to do or where to go for a follow-up, and is all confused and tangled up about this. At the same time he’s grappling with self-doubt and asking himself basic philosophical questions. He’s also caught up in complex relationships with certain women.

This is the basic rundown in Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2, which Tatiana and I watched last night. (She’d never seen it and I hadn’t since a laser disc viewing in the late ’90s.) It’s still perfectly made, still immaculate (all hail dp Gianni Di Venanzo), still ravishing…still a classic wandering dreamscape. An entirely centered and self-created world, “illogical” and story-free but adhering to a certain rhyme and reason and spiritual balance…wry self-portraiture that feels simultaneously intimate and mysterious and yet…what am I trying to say here?

I don’t know exactly but I have to stand up and say it straight. There’s something overly hermetic and self-involved about 8 1/2, and while it’s the original Big Daddy when it comes to films about an artist feeling stuck and at loose ends, a film that sired Paul Mazursky‘s Alex in Wonderland, Woody Allen‘s Stardust Memories, Bob Fosse‘s All That Jazz and you tell me how many others…you have to ask yourself “why did Fellini call it 8 1/2?”

Marcello Mastroianni during filming of “8 1/2”

I’ll tell you why — because he’d made eight films before it (two being omnibus shorts) and there was apparently something about 8 1/2 that in his mind felt incomplete or rabbit-holey on some level, and so he referred to it as half a film, which is to say a film in search of itself. Seriously — why didn’t Fellini call it Nine?

As lame or naive as this may sound to some, there are portions of Stardust Memories (which was also partly inspired by early Ingmar Bergman, I realize) that feel just as brave and exploratory and self-revealing as 8 1/2, on top of which it’s actually funny at times (like the train-car sequence at the very beginning). I was never much of a fan of Alex in Wonderland, but now I’m thinking I’ll give it another shot.

Tatiana found 8 1/2 a bit confining on some level; even a bit draining. Sublime and confident within its own imaginative, free-associating realm, but not, she felt, as engrossing as she’d hoped it would be (or had heard it would be).

We decided to watch 8 1/2 after seeing Selma Dell’Olio‘s Fellini of the Spirits, a cerebral doc about the influences upon Fellini’s work over the years.

I’d somehow forgotten that gothic horror queen Barbara Steele has a costarring role in 8 1/2, and that she’s fascinating.

During filming of “8 1/2”